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Apple Denies Conspiracy Theory That iPhones ‘Listen’ to Conversations

Apple says that no, iPhones do not secretly record users’ conversations — nor do the smartphones “listen” in on their conversations.

The tech giant was responding to an inquiry from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee about consumer-privacy concerns involving Apple’s products. In their query to Apple, the lawmakers cited reports third-party developers had the ability to collect “non-triggered” audio from “users’ conversations near a smartphone in order to hear a ‘trigger’ phrase.”

iPhone doesn’t listen to consumers, except to recognize the clear, unambiguous audio trigger ‘Hey Siri,'” Apple said in the Aug. 7 letter, addressed to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The on-device speech recognizer on iPhones runs in a “short buffer,” and does not record or send any audio to Siri unless a user triggers the voice-recognition app, according to Apple. In addition, the company requires developers to obtain consent to access a user’s microphone and that they present a visual indicator when iPhones are collection audio info.

The U.S. reps had also asked Apple directly whether iPhones “collect audio recordings of users without consent,” to which the company responded simply, “No.”

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“We believe privacy is a fundamental human right and purposely design our products and services to minimize our collection of customer data,” Timothy Powderly, Apple’s director of federal governmental affairs, wrote in the letter. “The customer is not our product, and our business model does not depend on vast amounts of personally identifiable information to enrich targeted profiles marketed to advertisers.”

The subtext: Apple is not like Facebook, which has been the focus of U.S. investigations in the wake of revelations that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data in millions of Facebook users.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has criticized Facebook in previous comments and said his company’s position is that privacy as a “human right.” When asked in an interview for MSNBC’s “Revolution” series what he would do if he were in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes following the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, Cook responded, “What would I do? I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee also in July sent a similar letter inquiring about Google’s Android devices to Alphabet CEO Larry Page. It’s not known whether Alphabet has responded.

As part of its response to the committee, Apple said it has removed apps from the App Store over privacy violations and that developers must notify users when an app is removed for privacy reasons. However, the company also noted, “Apple does not and cannot monitor what developers do with the customer data they have collected” — with the permission of users — “or prevent the onward transfer of that data.”

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